Monday, June 27, 2016

Sacred Space

Image result for synagogue sanctuaryOur Sanctuary does not get used all that much nowadays.  It's a spacious room, pleasantly and inspiringly appointed and reasonably well maintained with only a few revisions in the building's fifty year history.  Over decades, though, membership has depleted to about a third of what it once was and attendance on shabbos has atrophied to about half of what it was when I first joined in the late 1990's.  In the winter it does not pay to heat the space or to cool it comfortably in the summer.  The Rabbi prefers worship with his audience less spread out.  As a result, most of the time shabbos worship takes place in a smaller chapel, perhaps just a mite small for the attendance but chairs are set up behind the pews and a folding door that expands the space into the library behind it is opened.

Architecturally, AKSE's building has many of the features of synagogues designed in the 1960's when the Jewish population was expanding but regular attendance at worship had not kept pace.  Young families often joined the synagogue as an obligation to enable their kids to have a Bar Mitzvah.  Sanctuary space was a small fraction of the building, as shabbos was never a great priority for an increasingly secular membership,  while a social hall behind the sanctuary separated by a movable wall enabled seating of more people for Holy Days though the wall could be restored for any number of social events from galas to lectures.  Hebrew School space comprised the majority of the building as large numbers of tykes would come three days a week and have to be partitioned into about ten or so classrooms each time, two per grade if the congregation was fortunate.  And some space, not a lot, would be needed for the Rabbi to do the things that Rabbi's do, usually nicely appointed with a lot of book shelving, and a nook for the cantor to tutor bar mitzvah wannabes and a place for the school principal to discipline wayward Hebrew school kids who were sent to her office for various modes of misconduct.

Now we have only a vestigial Hebrew School, hardly any Bar Mitzvah students to tutor and no Cantor to tutor them, and a lot of three dimensional air that has to be modified in temperature at some monthly cost.  Yet our assigned Sacred Space gets utilized just as much as it always has.  Shabbos comes every week.  Yom Tovim arrive at the appointed time.  There is a minyan, or at least an attempt to secure one, twice a day.  Weddings take place.  Funerals take place.  Guest Scholars and public officials address our congregation from the Bimah from time to time.

While synagogue architecture of that era has a lot of common elements, each congregation has its own uniqueness, its own idiosyncrasies.  Ours has a second floor and it has a basement.  Expensive things happen in the basement and on the roof, affecting what goes in the middle.  Our congregational building also had to adapt to a merger before synagogue mergers were common.  One component was a classic orthodox congregation with gender separation at worship, the other mixed seating, permitted by the Orthodox Union at the time but the reason for evicting us from the organization shortly after my arrival.  To meet this reality, small men's and women's seating sections were designated in the main sanctuary and chapel and continue to this day, though hardly ever have men and not all that many women.  

Not everything that happens in what has been designated Sacred Space is really worship.  Two events this summer and one last year caught my attention.  First, we have our main sanctuary used for public lectures and for funerals.  They attract men and women other than our own members.  I find it a little disconcerting that men attend these events, entering our sanctuary without a suitable head covering.  The official policy has been to keep the kippah box at the main entrance.  At one time there was a sign with it that indicated men were expected to keep their head covered  whenever in the building, but that sign is long gone.  The funeral directors, who could easily remind the men when they assist them with parking, don't seem to have this in their script and it does not appear to be much of an attention to detail for either our Rabbi or VP Religious Affairs to reverse what appears to be a slouch.  At least put the kippah box at the entrance to the sanctuary and move it to the entrance to the chapel if that is where people will congregate.

In the chapel, the signs of men's and women's section remain, ignored every week by a couple who means well and likes to sit together up front.  The Rabbi could use this as his teaching moment to folks who are new to observant Judaism but hasn't.  And if nobody really cares fifty years into our building's history, if separate seating option is no longer desired by anyone, perhaps it is better to remove the signs for gender specific seating rather than have our legacy overtly flouted.

Unfortunately, a secular constituency including a secular executive committee with building VP's more attuned to the roof than the sanctity that should be taking place beneath it, lacks the sensitivity to think in those terms.  Promoting the synagogue has become more of a dues enhancement project than any form of exploration and analysis of the Judaism that those funds should be sustaining.

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